Science has delivered the vaccines, will the WTO deliver accessibility?

Manufacturing capacity for the Covid-19 vaccines urgently needs to be scaled up to meet the massive global need.— Reuters

A PROPOSAL by India, South Africa and eight other countries calls on the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to exempt member countries from enforcing some patents and other intellectual property rights under the organisation’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for a limited period. It is to ensure that intellectual property rights do not restrict the rapid scaling up of manufacturing Covid-19 vaccines. While a few members have raised concerns about the proposal, a large proportion of the WTO membership supports it. It has also received the backing of international organisations and global civil society.

Unprecedented times call for unorthodox measures. We saw this in the efficacy of strict lockdowns for a limited period as a policy intervention in curtailing the spread of the pandemic. The International Monetary Fund in its October 2020 edition of World Economic Outlook states, “However, the risk of worse growth outcomes than projected remains sizable. If the virus resurges, progress on treatments and vaccines is slower than anticipated, or countries’ access to them remains unequal, economic activity could be lower than expected, with renewed social distancing and tighter lockdowns.”

The situation appears to be grimmer than predicted, we have already lost 7% of economic output from the baseline scenario projected in 2019. It translates to a loss of more than US$6tril (RM24.2tril) of global gross domestic product. Even a 1% improvement in global GDP from the baseline scenario will add more than US$800bil (RM3.2tril) in global output, offsetting the loss certainly of a much lower order to a sector of economy on account of the waiver.

Merely a signal to ensure timely and affordable access to vaccines and treatments will work as a big confidence booster for demand revival in the economy. With the emergence of successful vaccines, there appears to be some hope on the horizon.

But how will these be made accessible and affordable to the global population? The fundamental question is whether there will be enough Covid-19 vaccines to go around. As things stand, even the most optimistic scenarios today cannot assure access to vaccines and therapeutics for the majority of the population, in rich as well as poor countries, by the end of 2021.

All the members of the WTO have agreed that there is an urgent need to scale up the manufacturing capacity for vaccines and therapeutics to meet the massive global need. The TRIPS waiver proposal seeks to fulfil this need by ensuring that intellectual property barriers do not get in the way of such efforts.

Existing flexibilities under the TRIPS agreement are not adequate as these were not designed with pandemics in mind. Normal procedure requires that compulsory licenses are issued on a country by country, case by case and product by product basis, where every jurisdiction with an intellectual property regime would have to issue separate compulsory licenses, making collaboration among countries extremely onerous. While we usually encourage the use of TRIPS flexibilities, they are time-consuming and cumbersome to implement and, hence, cannot ensure the timely access of affordable vaccines and treatments.

Similarly, we have not seen very encouraging progress on the World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) initiative, which encourages voluntary contribution of intellectual property, technology and data to support the global sharing and scaling up of the manufacturing of Covid-19 medical products. Voluntary licenses, even where they exist, are shrouded in secrecy. Their terms and conditions are not transparent. Their scope is limited to specific amounts or for a limited subset of countries, thereby encouraging nationalism rather than true international collaboration.

Global cooperation initiatives such as the Covax Mechanism and the ACT-Accelerator are inadequate to meet the massive global needs of 7.8 billion people. The ACT-A initiative aims to procure two billion doses of vaccines by the end of next year and distribute them fairly around the world. With a two-dose regime, however, this will only cover one billion people. That means that even if ACT-A is fully financed and successful, which is not the case presently, there would not be enough vaccines for the majority of the global population.

During the initial few months of the pandemic, we have seen that shelves were emptied by those who had access to masks, personal protective equipment, sanitiser, gloves and other essential Covid-19 items even without their immediate need. The same should not happen to vaccines.

Eventually, the world was able to ramp up manufacturing of pandemic essentials as intellectual property barriers were not involved. At present, we need the same pooling of rights and know-how for scaling up the manufacturing of vaccines and treatments, which unfortunately has not been forthcoming, necessitating the need for the waiver.

It is the pandemic – an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime event – that has mobilised the collaboration of multiple stakeholders. It is knowledge and skills held by scientists, researchers, public health experts and universities that have enabled the cross-country collaborations and enormous public funding that has facilitated the development of vaccines in record time – and not intellectual property!

The TRIPS waiver proposal is a targeted and proportionate response to the exceptional public health emergency that the world faces today. Such a waiver is well within the provisions of Article IX of the Marrakesh Agreement that established the WTO. It can help in ensuring that human lives are not lost for want of timely and affordable access to vaccines.

The adoption of the waiver will also reestablish WTO’s credibility and show that the multilateral trading system continues to be relevant and can deliver in times of crisis. Now is the time for WTO members to act and adopt the waiver to save lives and help in getting the economy back on the revival path quickly.

(A Reuters report says a closed-door meeting of WTO members on Tuesday remained at an impasse as opponents to the TRIPS waiver proposal – including the European Union, the United States and Switzerland, all home to major pharmaceutical companies – stuck to their guns. Discussions are still ongoing.)

While making the vaccines available was a test of science, making them accessible and affordable is going to be a test of humanity. History should remember us for the “AAA rating”, ie, for the availability, accessibility and affordability of Covid-19 vaccines and treatments, and not for a single “A rating” for availability only. Our future generations deserve nothing less. – Korea Herald/Asia News Network

Brajendra Navnit is ambassador and permanent representative of India to the World Trade Organisation. The views expressed here are solely the writer’s own.

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